In the green glow of nighttime video, a young Iraqi tries to get his family's generator running again. "There's a battle going on," he says to the camera with which he's filming himself. "There's an airplane up above and shooting in the street. Should I go and film it? I may get shot." As gunfire echoes somewhere, frustration sets in.
"Is it my job to be an oil mechanic?" he asks. "I should be studying now."
"Baghdad High" is not the first documentary for which high school students have been handed cameras and asked to record their daily lives. But the stakes are different when driving to school in the morning could mean being shot at a checkpoint.
The film, which was shown on British television earlier this year and had its HBO premiere on Monday night, follows four Iraqis - a Sunni, a Shiite, a Kurd and a Christian - through their senior year in 2006-7, ending with the dreaded national exams that will determine if they can go on to college. That's assuming they're still in Baghdad; one of the film's refrains is the question of whether to stay, and during the school year Ali, the reluctant generator repairman, leaves with his family for Kurdish territory.
Ivan O'Mahoney, who produced and directed "Baghdad High" with Laura Winter, says in the press notes that it was fantastic to realize "that people do lead normal lives despite the mayhem." And you can see what he means: boys texting girlfriends, doing homework to the sound of Tupac, cutting Islamic studies to play soccer.
But of course it's the differences that make the film. The way the boys can tell without looking whether it's an Apache or a Chinook helicopter overhead. The way the curtains are always drawn. The level of physical contact and affection among the men, which would be alien to American sensibilities. And the seriousness with which these teenagers take their lives and responsibilities as filmmakers.
The mixture of adolescent high spirits and Baghdad pragmatism can be exhilarating and chilling. In one scene Ali kills time with his best friend, Mohammed, an irrepressible joker who emerges as the film's star. They argue over control of the television; they roughhouse on the couch. "If Chemical Ali really wanted to destroy the north, he should have fired a rocket with Mohammed's socks in it," Ali says. Suddenly Ali is holding a large knife. "He's being naughty!" Mohammed says. Ali holds the knife near Mohammed and says, a little too unemotionally: "Allah! This is the first hostage. I'm going to slaughter him this way." Mohammed tells him to stop fooling around. Ali relents. "He just got a presidential pardon. He can live."
While the boys talk frequently about violence and despair, they rarely discuss politics or ethnic differences (with the exception of Anmar, the Christian) and they almost never directly address the American presence. Whether this reflects their mindset or is a result of editing 300 hours of tape into 90 minutes, we can't tell. We do hear some parental opinions, which are surprisingly neutral. One mother says: "We shouldn't blame the Americans for everything. There is something wrong with us too."
With exams over, Mohammed faces his camera and says, "I'm sorry for having bothered you and bored you and having made your life hell." The irony could be thick, but instead the tone is consistent with the rest of the film: sad and sweet, in equal measure.